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|Gathering Storm: Part 4|
March 30, 2014
In the evening following the rally in the Fire Nation Capitol, a lavish ball was held in the palace of Fire Lord Azulon. Unlike the rally, where those of all social status was present, this event was reserved for merely the top officers, elites, nobility and the royal family themselves. Even the well-known Thandao Zhou did not show himself at this time.
It began with a dinner and reception, in reverse order, followed by a ball in the Fire Lord and Crown Prince's honor. Not all of the royal family were present, however. "Where's Uncle Ozai and his family, Father?" Lu Ten wondered aloud. "I was hoping to see ZuZu."
"And Azula?" his father prompted, albeit as a question, chuckling.
"And Azula, sure," Lu Ten added nonchalant. "It's been a while since I saw those kids, with everything that's been happening. It's disappointing there's no one else from the family here."
"That's not true, my boy!" exclaimed Iroh. "Cousin Lizen came. Look, here he is now."
"So sorry Crown Prince Iroh," Lizen excused himself with a hearty laugh that gave himself away. "It does appear that we are late yet again. As you can see, it took my Jaya's handmaidens ages to do her hair this evening. Lu Ten, doesn't she look beautiful tonight?" Lizen added, gesturing at his tall, elegant daughter, who wore a light, traditional gown qipao for the occasion.
"Umm...sure," Lu Ten agreed, slightly taken aback by the question.
The proud man grinned widely. "Lu Ten, why don't you dance with your cousin," Prince Lizen suggested with emphasis. "I have something I'd like to speak with your father about." Both Iroh and Lu Ten raised their eyebrows in unison at this proposal, but they each complied with Lizen's butting in. Prince Lu Ten proceeded to offer his arm to Jaya and escort her away.
"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" asked Iroh, downing a hot cup of ginseng tea, or rather, what remained of it, in one gulp.
Now that they were left alone, Lizen softened his tone somewhat as he stared into his cousin's eyes. "My dear Iroh, I'd like to do what many others are undoubtedly ready to do following your successful rally today. I want to volunteer. Princess Jaya would be accompanying me as well."
"Really?" Iroh asked, surprised. He had clearly not been expecting to hear this from Lizen this night. "When's the last time you were on active duty."
"Over twenty years ago," Lizen admitted. "Before you conquered the last dragon in existence." Unlike many members of the royal family, Lizen had not stayed with the Fire Army for long after the required years of service asked of him.
"That's what I thought," Iroh nodded.
"But everyone's doing their part in the war effort now, and it's only fair that I do the same. Princess Jaya is planning to accompany me as well."
"Very good," said Iroh. "Consider yourself part of my high command. Us in the royal family must always stand side-by-side and keep our ties strong. It is an example for the whole nation. I'm appointing you my Grand Sima for the venture." A few tables away, Han Shui, the former commander of the southern raiders, nearly spat out his drink. The rank that the Dragon of the West had bestowed was one normally only attained by benders, royalty or not.
Lizen's lips curled as he left Iroh to seek out another part of the festivities. "You're most generous, Iroh."
Meanwhile, Lu Ten and Jaya were dancing in the middle of the floor, their matchup drawing the stares of some of the high-ranking generals and scornful gazes of both noble young men and women alike. They were like a spinning looking glass, or the opposite of one. Lu Ten's expression was constantly changing, full of life. Jaya's expression was motionless, her glittery, glassy makeup making her face white and statue-like. She was a lifelike picture one could stare at longingly, but still seemed only a picture with her ice-cold posture. If an outsider had no idea who she was, they would have a difficult time believing that she was a firebending prodigy, as she had been from a young, barely walking age.
"So..." began Lu Ten, breaking the hypnotic eye contact. "The fire lilies came early this year, didn't they?"
Princess Jaya blinked once. "Yes."
"They're pretty flowers," he added.
Jaya continued to dance silently, her hands caressing Lu Ten's body, eyes blank as they looked into his.
"Very nice to look at."
Jaya remained silent still.
Lu Ten's cheeks grew redder, much in contrast to Jaya's relatively pale face, and began searching his mind for his next words. "How's your firebending training been?"
"I see," Lu Ten replied as he took to searching his mind yet again. "And how's your father?"
Long, drawn-out moments passed as the princess maintained her composure while the prince searched his mind even more, yet again. "Ummm..."
They had just reached the side of the dance floor and Princess Jaya withdrew her arms from Prince Lu Ten and trotted into a corner. "You haven't changed a bit, dear cousin. You tell everyone you're fearless, but you're really not."
With Jaya facing away, Lu Ten regained his calm. "Whatever, you know what, I give up. I'll try to find somewhere else to enjoy this party."
"Not everything in life's a game, Lu Ten..." Jaya trailed on as her cousin started to walk off.
Lu Ten turned sharply back to face her at this seemingly-random comment. "I didn't say that it was..."
Jaya giggled, which was the last thing Lu Ten expected from her. As she did, she showed all her pearly-white teeth, which matched her face. "I hear you've become quite a firebender, cousin."
"Who told you that?"
"You did," she said plainly. "At the rally. It was in the speech you gave, remember. You told the crowd that you could take down ten earthbenders singlehandedly."
"Oh yeah," Lu Ten scratched the back of his neck gloomily. "Actually, that wasn't my idea, it was the Fire Lord's."
"Nevertheless, you've been practicing if you fought five other advanced students and won. You and I will have to spar again. If you remember, I won last time."
"Right," said Lu Ten. "We were thirteen, weren't we?"
"Something like that," said Jaya, breaking eye contact. "Our family doesn't get together very often nowadays. Spirits know, I haven't seen the other cousins in a while. Little Azula's quite a gifted prodigy, I hear."
"Yes," confirmed Lu Ten. "And I always took a liking to Zuko. That little kid has tough stamina for his age."
"The Earth Kingdom's had stamina, too, to evade our nation's grasp for this long," Jaya turned the subject to her political analysis. "Father and I are joining you at Ba Sing Se. All the stubborn stamina in the world won't let their capital hold out this time, once we all send our firepower at it."
"You're confident," said Lu Ten. "My father will be pleased to hear that."
"Aren't you?" asked Jaya, sharpening her gaze.
"Of course," said Lu Ten, not intimidated at all this time. "I'm sure we'll take the capital eventually, but it will be hard. We'll be in for a long, drawn-out campaign."
"Plenty of time for each of us to polish our firebending talents."
Late in the evening, when all was done with at the party, the guests went home and the royal hosts to their loyal promenade retired to their chambers. The two princes that were in the direct line of succession to their country's highest title left the area together before saying their good nights.
"That was some day," remarked Iroh. "I saw you conversing with Jaya for a while after you danced."
"Yes," said Lu Ten. "She's...unique, to say the least."
"The ones we're related to always find ways to distinguish themselves," Iroh said with a faint trace of a laugh. "Prince Lizen has volunteered. He's coming with us to Ba Sing Se."
"So I heard."
"I appointed him Grand Sima."
"You did?" Lu Ten asked through stunned eyes and lips.
"Yes," Iroh reaffirmed. "It seems right for him."
"Has he the experience?"
"No, but it seems right for him."
"This sounds eerily like one of your proverbs, if I didn't know better."
Iroh raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Which one?"
Lu Ten hesitated. "I recall it saying something about keeping the ones you call friends close, and...well, the other ones closer."
Iroh took a deep, elongated breath. "That's one of the more sinister proverbs there is, but in the world we live in, it's not always without merit. You're wise not to call Prince Lizen an enemy, since he isn't. However, he is acting odd, which can't be taken lightly. In a way, he's like Han Shui. He doesn't often do anything without reason, so I'd like a regular report of his actions and intentions, one which he himself is responsible for giving no less."
Just then, a palace servant approached the pair. "My apologies for the interruption. It's a package, for your eyes alone Crown Prince."
"I wonder what that could be," said Lu Ten curiously.
"Probably a really late birthday present. Good night, Lu Ten," said Iroh. With that, he entered his own chamber, put on a pot of tea and sat in his comforting chair, spreading his legs across the floor and slipping off his shoes. "Now, let's see what everyone's been up to," Iroh said quietly to himself, his eyes moving up to the title across the scroll that had been contained within.
"White Lotus Sentinel," it read.
- Prince Lizen and Princess Jaya are the son and granddaughter of Fire Lord Azulon's deceased brother. They were originally introduced in Chapter 4. Here they are again in Chapter...37 o_o Well, sometimes that can happen when the individual chapters aren't very long.
- Grand Sima is named after a traditional Asian military rank, about on par with a Field Marshall. In this case, it's the nominal second-in-command, although it doesn't necessarily have to be that in practice.
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